NASA have recently showed off a zoomable 360 degree view of our galaxy, the Milky Way, produced by its telescope Spritzer. They showcased the panorama shot, which is a mosaic of 2 million infrared photographs taken over the course of 10 years, at last weeks TEDActive 2014 Conference in Vancouver Canada.
Now you can take an intergalactic trip from the safety of your own home across thousand upon thousands of light years from the Spritzer website. The 20 gigapixel image captures more than half of the galaxy's stars and yet just 3 percent of the Earth's sky, focusing on the band that contains the Milky Way's spiral arms.
"If we actually printed this out, we'd need a billboard as big as the Rose Bowl Stadium to display it," said Robert Hurt, an imaging specialist at NASA's Spitzer Space Science Center in Pasadena, Calif. "Instead, we've created a digital viewer that anyone, even astronomers, can use."
360 degree panaroma showing the slice of the galaxy being viewed [Image Source: NASA]
Spritzer has been in orbit since 2003 and has been working on more than just photography. It has been used to a broad range of areas from asteroids in our solar system to the most remote galaxies at the edge of the observable universe. During these 10 years, Spritzer spent 4124 hours (172 days) capturing infrared photographs which have now been stitched together to produce the panorama.
The use of infrared imagery allows to see further than visible light. Dust in the air and space causes a hindrance on visible light to travel whereas infrared light can pass through the dust and be detected by Spritzers detectors. Looking up at the night sky from Earth we can see 1000 light years away; Spritzers mosaic has detected light from stars at a greater depth from the 'backcountry' of our galaxy which extends 100 000 light years across.
Exploring the panorama you can find areas of star formation, bubbles which are cavities round massive stars and even distant galaxies. The images are helping astronomers produce a more accurate map of our galaxy and has revealed that it is slightly bigger than previously thought. "Spitzer is helping us determine where the edge of the galaxy lies," said Ed Churchwell, co-leader of the GLIMPSE team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We are mapping the placement of the spiral arms and tracing the shape of the galaxy."